GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - Flooding from heavy rains forced 40,000 Gaza Strip residents from their homes, including thousands who were taken to safety in boats and military trucks, officials said Saturday.
The downpour that began late Wednesday was part of a storm that covered parts of Israel and the West Bank with snow, paralyzed Jerusalem, and left thousands in Israel without power. Israeli TV stations showed footage of armored personnel carriers rescuing motorists and said it was the most severe snow storm in decades.
Even Gaza, with its milder coastal climate, saw some snow, though lower-lying areas were mainly hit by flooding.
Rescue efforts were hampered by fuel shortages and rolling power cuts that have become more severe in recent months, since Egypt tightened a border blockade of the territory ruled by the Islamic militant Hamas since 2007.
Israel has also restricted access to Gaza since the Hamas takeover, though it sent diesel fuel for heating and four water pumps during the weekend storm.
Once the storm is over, "the world community needs to bring effective pressure to end the blockade of Gaza," said Chris Gunness, a spokesman for the main U.N. aid agency in the territory. Gaza residents "must be freed from these man-made constraints to deal with the impact of a natural calamity such as this," he added.
In the low-lying areas of Gaza, water has been rising since heavy rains began late Wednesday, flooding streets and homes.
One of the hardest-hit areas was Nafak Street in Gaza City's Sheik Radwan neighborhood, close to a rainwater reservoir.
In all, the flooding forced about 40,000 people from their homes, including more than 5,200 who were taken to safety in boats, military trucks or heavy construction vehicles, government officials said.
Another hard-hit area was the refugee camp of Jebaliya in northern Gaza. The local Al Aqsa TV station, run by Hamas, showed Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and Interior Minister Fathi Hamad, both of Hamas, touring Jebaliya in a boat.
By Saturday afternoon, teams were fixing downed power lines and piled up sandbags in some areas to protect homes from flooding.
The storm hit Gaza at a time when it is buckling under the tightened border closure by Egypt. Over the summer, Egypt's military intensified its blockade after ousting Egypt's Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, a Hamas ally.